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Dreaming of Obama

We’re now in a packed room at Eastern Illinois University. A woman stands up and tosses Obama what I assume she thinks is a bit of red meat. What, she asks, does the senator think of the pervasiveness of religion in public discourse these days? Obama doesn’t take the bait.

“No one would say that Dr. King should leave his moral vision at the door before getting involved in public-policy debate,” he answers. “He says, ‘All God’s children.’ ‘Black man and white man, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic.’ He was speaking religiously. So we have to remember that not every mention of God is automatically threatening a theocracy.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “religious folks need to understand that separation of church and state isn’t there just to protect the state from religion, but religion from the state.” He points out that, historically speaking, the most ardent American supporters of the separation between church and state were Evangelicals—and Jefferson and Franklin. “Who were Deists, by the way,” he adds, “but challenged all kinds of aspects of Christianity. They didn’t even necessarily believe in the divinity of Christ, which is not something that gets talked about a lot.”

Back in the car, he elaborates on the kinds of themes he tries to communicate to his constituents. “To me, the issue is not are you centrist or are you liberal,” he says. “The issue to me is, Is what you’re proposing going to work? Can you build a working coalition to make the lives of people better? And if it can work, you should support it whether it’s centrist, conservative, or liberal.”

As a rule, Obama tends to avoid divisive rhetoric, and he works hard to reconcile warring political points of viewan instinct, if you look carefully at his memoir, that he clearly learned in his youth. As a teenager, for example, he argued with a black friend that maybe white women refused to date him not because they were racists, but because “they just want someone who looks like their daddy, or their brother, or whatever, and we ain’t it.”

And so this impulse to reconcile now shows up in politics. In town-hall meetings, when those who opposed the war get shrill, Obama makes a point of noting that while he, too, opposed the war, he’s “not one of those people who cynically believes Bush went in only for the oil.” When I ask about Lieberman’s recent vilification of the left, Obama seems equally vexed: “His most recent comments tying the bomb threat in Great Britain to Iraq was a pretty crude political play.” Obama’s first year in office, he voted for cloture on the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court (though not for the nomination itself), earning dozens of angry posts on Daily Kos, a hugely well-trafficked liberal blog. Obama responded with a polite but stern four-page note.

“One good test as to whether folks are doing interesting work is, Can they surprise me?” he tells me. “And increasingly, when I read Daily Kos, it doesn’t surprise me. It’s all just exactly what I would expect.”

Which is not to say that Obama doesn’t have very strong partisan convictions. “There are times I think we’re not ambitious enough,” Obama says. “I remember back in 2004, one of the candidates had made a proposal about universal health care, and some DLC-type commentator said, ‘We can’t propose this kind of big-government costly program, because it’ll send a signal we’re tax-and-spend liberals.’ But that’s not a good reason to not do something. You don’t give up on the goal of universal health care because you don’t want to be tagged as a liberal. People need universal health care.”

According to Congressional Quarterly, Obama voted with his party 97 percent of the time in 2005—the same as John Kerry and three others—with only eight senators voting consistently more Democratic than he did. (As a point of contrast, John McCain voted with his party only 84 percent of the time.) It’s hard not to call that record liberal, as much as Obama dislikes labels. When Obama was still in the Illinois state senate, his contributions were certainly viewed as liberal—sponsoring the Earned Income Tax Credit, requiring that confessions for capital crimes be videotaped—though he was also known as a man who worked skillfully across the aisle.

“Look, Barack Obama’s a likable fellow and he’s smart,” says Lindsey Graham, an independent-minded Republican senator from South Carolina who’s a close ally of John McCain. “But to be a major player in the Senate with a polarized nation, you’re going to have to demonstrate the ability to take criticism from your friends. Challenging your political enemies is easy. Taking on your friends is hard.”